"Hacksaw Ridge" (2016) - Rated R / Runtime: 131 minutes
Directed by Mel Gibson
Written by Robert Schenkkan, Andrew Knight
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Vince Vaughn, Hugo Weaving, Teresa Palmer
Review by: JJ Mortimer
With Hacksaw Ridge, director Mel Gibson partakes in the proud telling of another addition to the great pantheon of dramas involving the last Great War, in a film that is anchored by an endearing performance from Andrew Garfield as conscientious objector, Private Desmond Doss. Gibson, with his almost independent filmmaker prowess, tells the story he wants to tell, and does so without processing too many contemporary values and thoughts into the equation, therefore delivering a film that is a more appropriate mirroring of the ethical and political values of the early 20th century rather than that of contemporary times.
Mel Gibson isn't known for being completely accurate with his "true stories." Braveheart, in my opinion one of the best epic motion picture dramas of the past few decades, was also about as accurate as Mr. Magoo in a shooting range. But, Gibson nontheless proves himself an effective storyteller by focusing on what makes a story - a "movie story" - great. For him it's not about knowing exactly how every foot was stepped onto the trail as it is remembering which steps mattered the most. I know that Hacksaw Ridge is a lot of "Hollywood" fictional retelling and embellishing, but damn does it make for some inspirational, dramatic, and powerful storytelling.
This film was full of actors I normally don't like or have even grown to hate over time, yet somehow they all redeem themselves with fantastically commanding performances (and partly because the film was also a strong platform for drama). Andrew Garfield as private Desmond Doss is a well-cast lead, a man who is not only easy to relate to, but at times a worthy role model for his strong, strict stature on his moral, religious, and ethical code. As with the supporting cast, the most notable is Vince Vaughn who I really enjoyed as drill sergeant Howell, in a role that some could see as schlocky or derivative at times (unfair comparisons have been made to R. Lee Ermey of Full Metal Jacket fame, but on a smaller scale), but I found his performance to be perfectly fit into the tone of the film, and a welcome surprise given the history of roles the man has taken.
Hacksaw Ridge is one of the rare movies that, in the first act, truly feels like it was filmed and is being acted more closely to the era in which the film takes place than it does in our current generation. The performances are a little sappy and goofy at times, but somehow I bought into all of it. As the film progresses and the bright daylight around Doss begins to darken into the war-torn dirt, mud, fire and smoke, his character becomes the light in the darkness of death and despair, showing that the actions of one can prove far greater than the often lost and misguided actions of many.
Earlier portions of the film involving the life of Desmond Doss before he enlists may sway some film-goers looking for an immediate, straight-to-the-punch, die-hard action war film, but what these earlier, more innocent moments do is enlighten the later moments of the film, drawing more emotion from his character (and the audience's attachment to his personal journey) and teaching us just how valuable it is to stay true to your personal values, and how not turning your back on your convictions define you as the person that you are.
A huge mention must be made on how Hacksaw Ridge is a beautifully photographed motion picture, one of the more carefully blocked, shot, and edited pieces of action filmmaking I've seen in many years, especially in an era when action cinematography is so shaky, lazy, and unimaginative. Not since the late Conrad Hall's work in Road to Perdition have I seen a film and immediately thought, "This film will win the Oscar for best Cinematography." I've seen a lot of films I knew would get nominated, but rarely do I ever predict outright a win for a film. Well, here's my early prediction, and I truly hope I'm correct and that director of photography Simon Duggan takes home an Oscar (despite also having worked on Warcraft, one of the worst films of this year). Not only is Duggan's work here a marvel in atmosphere, but also in knowing when to hold shots on character's faces, and allowing the emotion to seep into the scene by simply allowing the viewer to feel the determination in Desmond's expressions.
Writer Robert Schenkkan, who wrote the script for Hacksaw Ridge, also has experience in WWII drama, having written four episodes of the superb miniseries The Pacific, including episodes also surrounding the Japanese campaign. This film feels very much in the same dramatic vein as that award-winning show, so watching Ridge in conjunction as a two-hour continuation of the stories told in the miniseries could add some interesting drama to a long Sunday of emotional, historical-based war movies.
To me, what is most important about Hacksaw Ridge is that Mel Gibson has created a film that has immediate rewatchability, and in today's times (and against my often jaded cynicism toward Hollywood pandering and production judgment), that is a HUGE plus. Hacksaw Ridge acts as a good lesson on the importance to adhering to one's personal values; staying true to oneself, regardless of the oft ignorance of outside oppression. If a parent could get past the extremely gory nature of war on display in many scenes, I could see the values taught by this film being very beneficial to a teenager/young adult unsure of the sincerity of knowing just how important it is to stay true to what they think is right.
Hacksaw Ridge is by no means a perfect movie, and it's all the better for that. A few shoddy composite/green screen effects in the beginning of the film might throw a few film enthusiasts off at first, but the film's inspirational quality and entertainment value (two staples of Mel Gibson's films) gives this one a few extra points in my book. It's also really nice to see actual stuntmen lit on fire, and despite a few obvious CGI gunshot wounds, the majority of the war carnage looked very convincing and graphic using old-school makeup effects and techniques, rather than hindering too much on computer-generated fakery. A highly recommended film from my point-of-view, and a contender for my short list as one of the best films of the year.